What the hell did we all just witness?
Um, sure. Let’s go with that. An Irish win it certainly was. Beyond that? Your guess is as good as mine.
Have you ever seen the movie “Moneyball?” There’s that scene where Oakland A’s General Manager Bill Beane (portrayed by Brad Pitt) tells his scouts that they should look for cheap free agents who can be used to statistically recreate the A’s former star players “in the aggregate.”
I feel like Notre Dame’s win over Duke was that kind of moment, escaping thanks to the aggregate of the Irish staff’s coaching acumen and the Irish players’ talent. In other words, for what Marcus Freeman and Gerad Parker may be lacking on the sideline, Sam Hartman and Audric Estime made up for it on the field, and that was enough for a win. BARELY enough.
This isn’t meant as a slight against the current Irish coaches, even though they deserve criticism for how the offense has performed the last two weeks. The fact of the matter is that of Notre Dame’s now-30 consecutive regular season wins over ACC opponents, ex-Irish head coach Brian Kelly contributed 24. Kelly found a way to win games against teams Notre Dame was better than, even if the wins were ugly.
We saw the 2023 Notre Dame team’s coaching snafus against Ohio State, the seemingly boneheaded offensive decisions over the last two weeks and the undisciplined play on both sides of the ball against Duke. Kelly’s gameplans were rarely perfect, but there weren’t usually this few peaks and this many valleys. For as much glee as I’m sure many of you readers took in the loss Kelly’s current team suffered at the hands of Ole Miss on Saturday, if you’re being honest with yourselves, you can admit that Brian Kelly — imperfect a coach as he is — is a better X’s and O’s coach than Marcus Freeman and Gerad Parker combined.
Maybe the latter two will one day surpass Kelly, but for now they are growing on the fly at a school where they are constantly under a microscope. And even so, in a performance that should have resulted in a loss, they pulled out a Kelly-esque win in a very un-Kelly way.
It harkens me back to the 2021 Notre Dame team’s game at Virginia Tech, where Jack Coan was benched for Tyler Buchner only to replace an injured Buchner and lead the Irish to a comeback victory. Having attended that game in person, I can attest that it was utterly bananas. Even now I have to ask, how did Notre Dame win that game?
Michael Mayer, Kevin Bauman and Cane Berrong were all out injured and Mitchell Evans got ejected for targeting ON OFFENSE. Logan Diggs got his first action in that game. Kyren Williams broke five tackles on a touchdown run. Buchner threw two interceptions, one of which was a pick-6. Kevin Austin caught a two-point conversion while getting his facemask yanked. And Jonathan Doerer kicked a game-winning field goal with someone flashing a laser pointer in his eye.
This win over Duke was like that. Granted, Jordan Botelho’s targeting penalty notwithstanding, there weren’t as many sicko moments in this game; it was just that the offensive game plan was a lot worse than even that Virginia Tech one — albeit that the absence of half the scholarship receivers on the roster may qualify as an extenuating circumstance. Regardless, the ultimate difference in this game was talent winning out.
Sam Hartman picked up a first down on 4th-and-16 by putting his body on the line, and then Audric Estime broke a 30-yard touchdown run. That made up for about 58 minutes of lackluster playcalling and game management. For as bad as Notre Dame had been situationally over the previous seven-going-on-eight quarters, two moments made all the difference, and the Irish won those moments.
And let it not be said that I failed to give the defense credit for another admirable performance. Holding the opposition to 14 points should be enough to win every game the Irish play, just like holding Ohio State to 17 should have been enough for a win. The defense isn’t otherworldly, but it’s got some salt to it. Even though it seems to fold at the most inopportune times, that’s often because the offense leaves it out to dry.
And also a shoutout to Mitchell Evans, who basically singlehandedly shouldered the weight of Notre Dame’s entire passing game. The effort was Herculean and desperately needed.
When all’s said and done, a win is a win and winning is hard. Throw in any other sports truisms you can think of.
Sam Hartman has still, almost inexplicably, yet to throw an interception, and the defense finally recovered a fumble. The kicking game is mysterious to say the least, but 12:07 a.m. EDT is not the time to think deeply about Spencer Shrader’s starting job security. And Notre Dame didn’t let Ohio State beat them for the fourth time in two years (to be clear, the two head-to-head matchups and the Marshall loss are the three losses to which I’m referring). In the words of Farmer Hoggett, “That’ll do, Pig. That’ll do.”